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For Tampa officers, Morris trial is personal

TAMPA — For the Tampa police officers in courtroom 51, the evidence is personal. The victims are their friends.

Officers regularly testify about cases they have investigated, but in the capital murder case of Dontae Morris, they are talking about the deaths of co-workers. Some sat in the audience this week as a show of support.

Officer Steven Roy was the first to the scene on June 29, 2010, after Officers Jeffrey Kocab and Dave Curtis were each shot in the head. A sob caught in Roy's throat earlier this week when a lawyer asked him to testify about that night. He wrinkled his face and looked down.

Tampa Detective Ron Paulk watched from the audience. He had also rushed to the scene that early morning. On Tuesday, he wore a gray sports coat, blue tie, and a dime-size police badge pin with a blue line — a symbol of police standing between good and evil.

Later, outside the courtroom, he quietly chatted with a co-worker, Officer Bill Logan, who was the second to arrive at the scene. They share memories they wish they didn't have.

"But for the grace of God, it could have been Bill or I," Paulk told a reporter.

A handful of officers watched the trial each day, dressed in suits to avoid influencing the jury with their blue uniforms. They didn't show up in droves, as their police chief had said they could Friday in an email.

They say they want to ensure the victims' families have seats first. Many are getting their information from news reports.

"We still have jobs to do," said Tampa police Capt. Brian Dugan, who plans to monitor the trial all week because it involves the homicide department, which he oversees.

Those who stopped by court say they did it for one main reason: to show support for the families of Curtis and Kocab, and they had even attended jury selection in Orlando last week.

The mood was somber. Officers spoke in hushed voices outside the courtroom.

"It's been a long time coming," Paulk said.

Police shootings are unique: The investigators have emotional connections. They band together and talk of a "brotherhood." Another name is chiseled into a memorial. The slain are honored each year at a national gathering in Washington, D.C.

Law enforcement officers with no connection to each other feel the bond and share sorrow. One potential juror last week told the judge that, as a retired officer from Illinois, he considers officer killings a "personal affront."

"Obviously, any time a police officer gets killed in the line of duty, we're very concerned," Dugan said. "I'm here to support the families and be sure that justice gets done."

The trial is personal for Chief Jane Castor, too. The officers' deaths were by far the toughest trial she has experienced as chief, she told the Tampa Bay Times.

Like others in her agency, she did not have time to immediately grieve. The manhunt for Morris lasted four days. She was writing a eulogy for the slain officers when she got a call that, finally, they had Morris.

But even with an arrest, grief lingered.

Tampa police Sgt. Mark Delage and Officer Veronica Hamilton are trained in dealing with post-incident stress. They have counseled many in the department after the officers' slayings. Even Castor sought help.

For her, the toughest part is seeing Officer Curtis' four young sons grow up without a father.

"Just for no reason," she said. "You just think of the fundamental unfairness of it all."

Delage and Hamilton were in Orlando last week and in Hills­borough's court this week. In the email Castor sent Friday, she thanked the pair for their help, and she advised her officers.

"Make sure you take care of yourselves," she wrote, "and watch out for each other."

Times staff writer Peter Jamison contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

For Tampa officers, Morris trial is personal 11/13/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 11:41pm]
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